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ISU concerts a hit at 30
The 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment Band, a Civil War-era band originally mustered at Illinois State Normal University in 1861, kicks off this summer's edition of ISU's Concert on the Quad series at 7 p.m. Monday.

NORMAL - If the Illinois Shakespeare Festival is turning 30 this year, that must mean someone else is hitting the big 3-0 this summer, too.

So happy anniversary, ISU Concerts on the Quad - never mind that the concerts have only been on the quad since the summer of '93.

Just as the Shakespeare Festival itself has evolved over the decades, so, too, have the free outdoor music performances that were originally joined at its hip.

Back in the day - meaning back in the Shakespeare Festival's late-'70s/'80s era - the concerts were known as (take a deep breath) the Illinois Shakespeare Festival Monday Night Chamber Series.

The concerts were meant to fill the gap on the festival's official "dark" night, when no plays were performed.

The idea was to keep bodies coming in, with the tempting talents of ISU's music faculty as the bait.

During this era, there was no fancy, state-of-the-art festival theater on the grounds of Bloomington's Ewing Manor.

There was, however, that ramshackle original wooden stage that mercifully met a wrecking ball in 2000.

Over the years, the Monday Night Chamber Series was shuttled around to different points on the acreage, including the manor's courtyard area, which seats about 300; that rickety theater, which could only hold 50 more than the courtyard; and the grassy back-manor grounds, which were scenic but couldn't get around a logistically challenging slope.

The turning point came in 1992 when a jazz concert was attempted instead of the traditional chamber performance.

Around 500 patrons turned up, maxing out the courtyard capacity and leaving around 200 unhappy jazz fans on the outside looking in.

That was when then-ISU Music Department chairman Arved Larsen decided it was time to yank up the series' roots and transplant it from Ewing to the far more spacious and far more convenient ISU quad.

"We wanted to make the concerts more attractive, with a unique combination of music for each concert," Larsen said at the time.

The virtually restriction-free ISU quad provided the solution, along with a capacity for more than 1,500 bodies and, better yet, on-site rain venues in Kemp Recital Hall and Capen Auditorium (those options have since been supplanted by the even more accommodating Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall).

Parking? More of it.

The distance from street traffic noise? Far greater.

For the musicians, there was no more schlepping all of that instrumentation half-way across the Twin Cities: Everything they needed was just a trombone slide away.

Because of its size, the only thing the new space couldn't provide that the old one did was the folding chairs and bleachers.

But patrons have had no problem following the BYOS (bring-your-own-seating) dictum over the years.

Unlike the 300-or-so crowds at Ewing Manor, the quad-based concerts have averaged from 800 to 1,000, depending on the ever-fickle whims of Mother Nature.

These days, the concert series is not technically a part of the activities at Ewing Manor, though it is still billed as "sponsored by the ISU School of Music in conjunction with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival."

Larsen's vision for the free series 14 summers ago was for it to grow as time passed, allowing for the importation of artists from outside the ISU faculty. When current Concerts on the Quad series director Steve Parsons took over the job in 1996, Larsen's dream began to come true.

Further broadening the series' appeal was the decision Parsons made that year to move the start time up from 8 p.m. to a more family-friendly 7 p.m.

"That attracted more parents with kids and it was more attractive for older folks," he said. "Instead of getting done at 9:30, we're done by 8:30."

Among the memorable highlights, Parson reflected four seasons ago, have been internationally renowned fiddle player Liz Carroll and a well-received concert by the Chicago Brass Quintet.

This year's series kicks off at 7 p.m. Monday with the a nod to ISU's 150th anniversary celebration, via the popular 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment Band, an authentic re-enactment of the actual Civil War-era band that was mustered at Illinois State Normal University in 1861.

The second concert, on July 9, will feature ISU School of Music string faculty and guests in the annual "An Evening of Chamber Music" offering, a flashback to the concert series' Ewing Manor roots.

On July 16, the annual ISU Jazz Festival will swing the quad with the sounds of ISU jazz faculty musicians Tom Marko and Bill Koehler, along with some special guests.

On July 23, the stage will be taken by The Dorians, a Celtic band from Carbondale specializing in ballads and dance music from the Irish and Scottish traditions.

Closing out the series, per tradition, on July 30 is "Singing Under the Stars," a compendium of Broadway and opera favorites sung by members of the ISU vocal faculty and their guests.


Concerts on the Quad

Where: Illinois State University quad, on the east side of Cook Hall

When: 7 p.m. Mondays, July 2 through 30

Cost: Free (but bring own lawn chairs and blankets for seating)

Rain location: ISU Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall

Parking: Any ISU pay lot; free on any ISU surface lot after 7 p.m.

Information number: (309) 438-3838

Schedule:

• July 2: 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment Band, Civil War-era band

• July 9: An Evening of Chamber Music, with ISU string faculty and guests

• July 16: Annual ISU Jazz Festival, with ISU jazz faculty and guests

• July 23: The Dorians, Irish folk group

• July 30: Singing Under the Stars, with ISU vocal faculty and guests

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